No relationship – bottle shops plotted against rate of family violence incidents for Melbourne municipalities (source data: 2011 local government area profile)
No relationship – bottle shops plotted against rate of family violence incidents for Melbourne municipalities (source data: 2011 local government area profile)

The City of Casey in outer suburban Melbourne is concerned because, despite having high levels of domestic violence, the State Liquor Licensing Commission has approved construction of a Dan Murphy’s packaged liquor outlet in the municipality.

According to The Age the proposal to establish the bottle shop in a “family violence hot spot” has sparked calls for an overhaul of liquor licensing approvals.(Liquor licensing must consider family violence say councils after booze barn approved in hot spot):

The newspaper said the City of Casey experienced the highest number of family violence incidents of any local council in Victoria in the twelve months to September 2015. With 70 bottle shops it also has the highest number of packaged liquor outlets in the State.

It contrasted the approval with the recent report of the Royal Commission into Family Violence:

The Commission considers that greater attention should be paid to the relationship between alcohol supply and family violence in light of the evidence showing that alcohol misuse increases the severity and frequency of family violence.

It’s well established there’s a relationship between alcohol consumption and family violence, but is there a causal relationship between the number of bottle shops and family violence?

At first glance the answer might seem to be yes. After all, as The Age reports, Casey has both the largest number of packaged liquor outlets and the highest level of family violence in the State.

But hang on; with around 283,000 residents, the City of Casey is by far the largest municipality in Victoria. So it’s not that surprising it has the most bottle shops and the most family violence incidents.

But that’s in absolute terms. When differences in population are taken into account, Casey ranks twenty seventh in terms of the number of bottle shops per capita of all 31 Melbourne municipalities.

And when family violence incidents are measured on a per capita basis, it ranks eighth in Melbourne (the numbers are in the graphic at the bottom of The Age’s article, but you have to look for them).

In fact six of the seven Melbourne municipalities with higher per capita rates of family violence than Casey also have fewer bottle shops per capita!

On the basis of the numbers provided by The Age, it doesn’t look like there’s much of an association between bottle shops and family violence.

The Age only shows the rank order of municipalities. So I also looked at the Victoria Police statistics for the rate of family incidents; these are based on 2011-12 data but that won’t change the broad points I want to make.

They show Casey recorded 12.0 family violence incidents per 1,000 population. With 23.9 incidents per 1,000 population, the regional City of Latrobe had the highest rate in the State. (1)

The key thing these statistics show, though, is that there is no correlation between the rate of family violence and the density of bottleshops in Melbourne’s municipalities (see exhibit).

I don’t find that surprising. As the Commission points out, alcohol use is associated with a relatively small proportion of family violence incidents (but they tend to be more severe and chronic).

Also, this is packaged alcohol; whether there’s 60 or 70 bottle shops might affect travel time a bit but it isn’t going to change consumption all that much. That’s probably especially so in the case of those who get repeatedly violent with their families when drinking. (2)

Short of something approaching prohibition, putting a cap on the total number of packaged liquor outlets seems more likely to inconvenience the great majority of men and women in Casey who drink responsibly than it is to measurably reduce family violence.

My analysis might be “quick and dirty” but it suggests policy-makers should actually make sure they’ve got reliable evidence that it works before they resort to imposing caps on packaged liquor outlets. (3)

Importantly, focusing attention on what might be of limited relevance or even possibly a dead-end takes attention away from developing the sorts of policies that might really ameliorate the association between family violence and alcohol consumption.

Policy-makers might instead note that outer growth area municipalities in Melbourne have higher rates of family violence than middle and inner municipalities. It’s likely the characteristics of those populations provide a better explanation than bottle shop density.

For example, outer suburbs have high proportions of young families, households on low incomes, high levels of housing stress, and disadvantaged households.

It’s worth noting too that although the Royal Commission into Family Violence specifically discusses regulation of alcohol supply, it’s recommendation relating to this aspect (one of 211 recommendations) is hardly forceful:

The Victorian Government ensure that the terms of reference of the current review of the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 (Vic) consider family violence and alcohol-related harms. The review should involve consultation with people who have expertise in the inter-relationship between family violence and alcohol use.

It pays to look closely at proposals to address social problems indirectly. They can give the appearance of action but too often achieve little or nothing and avoid tackling the underlying cause.

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  1. In fact the seven highest rates were recorded in country municipalities. This is consistent with a story in The Age early last month by the same reporter – see Family violence rates higher in Victoria’s country area.
  2. What’s really needed is an analysis that measures alcohol volume by geographical unit rather than the number of outlets, since some can be quite small and others, like Dan Murphy’s, very large.
  3. Update 10:00 19 April: This paper, A longitudinal analysis of alcohol outlet density and domestic violence by Michael Livingston, examined 168 postcodes in Melbourne over 1996 – 2005 and concluded the density of packaged liquor outlets is positively associated with family violence. Policy-makers need to do more research; updating this paper would be a good start.